My Cousin Rachel and West Horsley Place: Bringing Du Maurier’s Novel to Life by Laura Varnam
Film poster, Rachel and Philip. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
Houses are of fundamental importance to the works of Daphne du Maurier. From Manderley in Rebecca to Navron in Frenchman’s Creek, houses are more than just a background or setting for du Maurier’s plot. Houses are characters in their own right and their histories intertwine with the lives of their inhabitants, for good or for ill. The great love of Daphne du Maurier’s life was of course Menabilly, the Tudor mansion house in Cornwall that she rented from the Rashleigh family, and that was to be the setting for many of her most successful novels. Menabilly was Manderley in Rebecca; it featured in its own right in du Maurier’s historical novel of the English civil war, The King’s General; and it also appears at the heart of the Barton lands in du Maurier’s 1951 bestseller My Cousin Rachel.
My Cousin Rachel is a compelling, mysterious, and seductive novel in which Philip Ashley’s world is turned upside down by the arrival of his guardian Ambrose’s widow, Rachel. Abroad in Italy for his health, resolute bachelor Ambrose meets the captivating Rachel, falls in love and marries her. But before he can return to Cornwall with his bride, Ambrose is dead and his letters home to his cousin Philip suggest foul play. ‘She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment’, Ambrose scribbles to Philip and du Maurier’s plot is driven by Philip, and the reader’s, desire to know whether Rachel has indeed poisoned first Ambrose and then Philip, with the exotic tisanas that she brews up.
Du Maurier’s work has always been a gift to film-makers as she has a strong sense of the visual. Scenes are set with the exactitude and atmosphere of a theatre stage and her chapters frequently end on cliff-hangers that compel the reader to turn the page. My Cousin Rachel was first made into a film in 1952, starring Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland (the latter the sister of Joan Fontaine, who famously brought the second Mrs de Winter to life in Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation of Rebecca). My Cousin Rachel returns to the big screen on June 9 2017 in a brilliant new adaptation, written and directed by Roger Michell and starring Rachel Weisz as Rachel, Sam Claflin as Philip, Iain Glenn as Philip’s godfather Nick Kendall, Holliday Grainger as Kendall’s daughter Louise, and Pierfrancesco Favino as Rachel’s Italian confidante, Rainaldi.
Rachel Weisz on set with director Roger Michell. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
This new adaptation perfectly brings to life the central characters of the novel. Rachel Weisz captures the enigma at the heart of cousin Rachel. She is by turns flirtatious, charming, and seductive; calculating, angry, and remote. Sam Claflin’s performance combines Philip’s immaturity and naivety– he is a man with no experience of women, let alone a modern woman like Rachel– with a barely suppressed frustration that violently bursts out when he doesn’t get his own way. But just as in du Maurier’s novel, the film’s other star is the primary location, Philip’s mansion on the Barton lands, the house that suddenly transforms from a masculine stronghold and refuge for Philip into a newly feminised space, as mysterious and inviting as Rachel herself.
The location that was chosen for the film’s representation of Philip’s house is a fascinating mansion called West Horsley Place, near Guildford in Surrey (http://westhorsleyplace.org/). West Horsley Place is a house with a history as complex and intriguing as du Maurier’s own Menabilly and no doubt du Maurier’s imagination would have been captured by its past lives and history. Menabilly, as du Maurier evocatively wrote in her 1946 essay ‘The House of Secrets’, whispered its secrets and stories to her and West Horsley Place is a house bursting with tales waiting to be told, as I discovered when I was lucky enough to visit the house and meet with its current custodian, the television presenter and author, Bamber Gascoigne.
West Horsley Place (L.Varnam)
Gascoigne, to his great surprise, inherited the house in July 2014 from his 99-year-old aunt, Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe. He commissioned a survey of the house and discovered that more than £7 million pounds would be needed to restore the house and so Gascoigne, with his wife Christina, formed the Mary Roxburghe Trust. The sale of the Duchess of Roxburghe’s possessions and the entire estate, comprising the house and three hundred acres of land between West and East Horsley in Surrey, went to the Trust in order to restore the buildings and to enable the house and estate to benefit the public.
Sam Claflin as Philip in front of West Horsley Place. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
Gascoigne’s guided tour of the property amply demonstrated how important the house is, in historical and architectural terms. Still very much in the process of being restored, it was clear to me how much there was to be discovered about the house, from features such as the Tudor beams and double-height hall to the wonderful library and landscaped gardens. The house, like Menabilly for du Maurier, encapsulates English history in its very bricks and mortar. The fifteen-century oak-beamed house was encased in a red-brick facade in the seventeenth-century and as Gascoigne explained as we looked round a selection of the fifty rooms, extraordinary events took place within its walls. In 1536 the house was requisitioned by Henry VIII and given to his cousin and friend Henry Courtnay, which occasioned a dinner in the great hall at which Henry VIII and his retinue sat down to a thirty-five course meal including a surprisingly array of birds, from pheasants and duck, to sparrows, heron, quail and partridge. Unfortunately for Courtnay, his favour with Henry did not last long and a mere three years after the lunch, Courtnay was beheaded, suspected of being involved in a catholic plot against the king.
Steeped in history, intrigue, and drama, West Horsley is the perfect location for Philip Ashley’s manor house in My Cousin Rachel and the richness of the location adds much to the visual feast on screen. The director Roger Michell comments that ‘we were all really surprised when we set foot inside [the house] for the first time. We all rather fell in love- the spirit of the place was so alive and raw.’ And for the film-makers, West Horsley Place had another very particular advantage. As the house is only just in the process of being restored, it was a building with just the right combination of qualities to represent the house in the novel. West Horsley Place had potential, as production designer Alice Normington explains. ‘Unlike National Trust houses, where you’re governed by a lot of rules, Bamber [Gascoigne] runs this, so we had so much freedom. He was amazing to us, and this great house gave us an exciting blank canvas on which to create.’
The hall transformed for filming. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
One of the striking visual elements in the film is the way in which the house is transformed. At the beginning of the film, it is the rather neglected male domain of Philip and Ambrose- full of dust, dogs, and in a state of some disrepair- but with the arrival of the refined and exotic Rachel, the house gradually comes to life and becomes more civilised. But it also becomes more mysterious, under Rachel’s influence. In some of the most intense and erotically charged scenes in the film, Rachel is surrounded by candlelight. Flickering and casting shadows on our heroine’s face, both Rachel and the house appear enchanting, inviting, and full of secrets.
Rachel Weisz during filming. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
A scene at the heart of the novel occurs on the eve of Philip’s twenty-fifth birthday, when he comes into his inheritance, and infatuated by his cousin, he climbs up into Rachel’s window from outside the house and showers her with the family jewels. The lover entering by the window is a classic device and the clandestine entry into the lady’s private space, bypassing the door, hints at the conquest of the woman which is to come. In the film, Philip climbs up the facade of the house into Rachel’s bedroom which is, as production-designer Normington comments, has ‘a strong femininity, though in a dark and mysterious way’.
Rachel (Rachel Weisz) and Philip (Sam Claflin) in Rachel’s bedroom. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
The room has dark blue chinoiserie wallpaper, popular in the Victorian period, and it is strikingly different from the deep red of Philip’s own bedroom. When Philip climbs through the window, Rachel remarks– in an addition to the novel– that she is rather too old for Juliet, alluding to Shakespeare’s Romeo. This comment alerts the audience to Rachel’s recognition that Philip is entering her private space in the role of the lover and it shows us how much the house– and Philip himself– has changed. Philip has almost become a stranger in his own house as Rachel’s presence changes everything, from his own sense of identity to his relationship with the house itself. In this scene in the novel, Philip tells Rachel: ‘I told you once that I had all the warmth and comfort that I needed within four walls. Have you forgotten? ... I spoke in error, I know now what I lack.’
Daphne du Maurier’s granddaughter, Grace Browning, commented upon watching the film, ‘when I read the book, this is exactly the house that I pictured in my mind. It was a welcome relief to see how brilliantly the house fitted the book.’ Du Maurier fans will also feel the same sense of relief, and indeed enchantment, when they watch the film and see the extraordinary West Horsley Place transform into the house of their imaginations, into du Maurier’s own house at the centre of her captivating novel, My Cousin Rachel.
The room at West Horsley Place that was used for Philip’s bedroom (L.Varnam)
Laura Varnam, June 2017 (c)
My Cousin Rachel opens in cinemas on June 9.
Film stills are copyright and courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
I would like to thank Premier Communications and Twentieth Century Fox for arranging the trip to West Horsley Place and in particular Bamber Gascogine and his team at the house for a fascinating and inspiring tour.